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Tarak Barkawi

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

Strategy over Security

The security paradigm has a habit of derailing political debate at the cost of critical thinking, and ultimately lives.
Last Modified: 23 Jan 2013 08:03
On behalf of security, lives of people end up sooner than expected, leaving a hollow of sorrow and a place for resentment that only leads to more violence. [AFP/Getty Images]

'Strategy' has an old fashioned, militaristic ring to it, like the Germans are about to invade.

'Security', by contrast, promises safety and succour, and projects an air of rational authority. It evokes our childhood stuffed animals.

Security will keep the monsters away.

So it seems a matter of common sense to devote vast resources to the military, to police and intelligence services, to border control and immigration authorities, and to much else that can be justified in the name of security.

Security even has a progressive side, as in 'human security' or 'environmental security'.

The underlying notion is that we can preserve what we have from threats. We can protect our way of life from others, from change. That is why security is such a powerful idea. It offers -seemingly- the reassurance of the known.

To be secure is to be in your comfort zone. Any politician or official promising you that is on to a winning ticket.

Of course, it goes without saying that security is devastating societies around the world. Wars, raids and strikes are conducted in the name of security. Borders are closed and people are detained, interrogated and tortured. Tremendous sums of money are spent on security, while all around us is poverty, hunger, disease, and loss of hope.

"We have plenty of war and violence in the world of security that we live in now, and they show little sign of abating."

Perhaps most pernicious is the way 'security' short circuits thinking and political debate. Once there is a security justification, there is no time to reflect or talk, one must act. It is in this way that nations like the US undermine their most fundamental values in the name of security. We sacrifice our laws, our rights, and our beliefs in order to be secure.

Strategy, by contrast, foregrounds the values and the political goals you hope to achieve in making use of armed force. Strategy is about using force and other means to achieve something that you value. It never lets you forget the purpose you are seeking to realize.

It is true that strategy imagines a world in which the use of force and the destruction that follows are always possible. Needless to say, we have plenty of war and violence in the world of security that we live in now, and they show little sign of abating.

The purpose behind strategy

Perhaps we should give up the dream that war can be ended or that security can be achieved with just one more drone strike or country invaded. We could turn instead to a revamped tradition of strategic thought that would discipline us to think critically and politically about the use of force.

What values do we want to serve with our use of force? What kind of future do we want to make with our wars?

These questions could lead to different thinking when, say, contemplating an intervention in Mali. Instead of trying to 'secure' Europe from terrorist safe havens in the Sahel, one might reflect on the action-reaction cycle that will follow any use of force. Will 'security' of this kind simply lead to more insecurity, more terrorist strikes, or to an insurgency? Or perhaps we would come to the conclusion that the furtherance of liberty and equality in the world was in fact served by rocketing terrorist columns on their way to Bamako.

Strategy means you have to think through the series of battles and events to come, to determine if you have a chance of achieving what you value in the future. To this end, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his Signed-in-Blood Battalion, which carried out the recent raid in Algeria, might ask themselves what they hope to achieve by such acts. What, exactly, is the path from killing unarmed middle aged Western oil workers to establishing the Caliphate?

The tradition of strategy offers even more: it raises the question of whether our countries, our peoples, our political organizations, as they are now, are worth fighting for.

 

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The idea of grand strategy entails critical reflection on the nature and character of the polity that strategy serves. What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of values do we want to see realized in the world? What, realistically, is the role of force among other policy instruments in bringing this about?

Some of the answers people might offer to these questions may not be particularly attractive. There are those in the world who have different values, and they too have armed forces of various kinds. Strategy has always to take account of the fact that others will have a say in how things turn out, on and off the battlefield.

In his day, Otto von Bismarck did not seek to 'secure' tiny Prussia. Rather he envisaged a new great power, a mighty nation-state built out of small principalities. He used war, law and diplomacy to create modern Germany, a vehicle in which the nationalist values he believed in could flourish.

The example may make you uncomfortable. But at least Bismarck was able to keep his ultimate purpose in mind when he invaded other people's countries. Can the legions of security experts who staff the ever-multiplying security bureaucracies in the West today say the same?

Moreover, Bismarck's success testifies to the realism of his planning. What do we in the West have to show for more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Setting aside the rape of our treasuries and of our values, do we even feel more secure?

Security begs questions about what it is you are securing. The purpose is merely to provide security.

Strategy foregrounds such questions. What kind of society, what kind of values, do you want to flourish in a world in which war and political violence are an ever-present possibility? How do you propose to mix force and other means to achieve these ends?

Instead of managing empires of security, or hoping for the war to end all wars, or dreaming of everlasting peace, we need a realistic debate about the relationship between armed force and political values.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

 

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